After 24 years and five albums together, you’d think that Elbow would be comfortable in their place. They are arguably one of the few bands – of past, present, and inevitably future – that have a career that is 99% bulletproof. The missteps of Elbow are so few and far between that you’d have to give me a few days to think up anything major. In fact, any criticism that was leveled at their last album, Build a Rocket Boys!, involved the idea that Guy Garvey and company had become complacent, that they’d gotten too good at voicing melancholic, relatable wisdom about heartbreak, growing older, and just living in general. When people are complaining that you’ve gotten so good at your own game that you need to change something, that’s a pretty good sign that your catalogue is rock solid.
If that’s the case, then Elbow’s sixth album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything, should assuage any criticism, because this beauty was borne out of change. Garvey broke up with his long-term girlfriend while the album was being made, and he’d spent a fair amount of time in New York, too. Add that with the fact that the band members recorded and composed their respective parts separately – rather than together, as they had with the previous albums – and you’ve got yourself a whole new ball game. And oh, what a gorgeous one it is. Take Off is equally sparse and lush, subtle and bold. You’re lulled into contentedness by the delicate instrumentals and Garvey’s comforting high baritone, only to have your heart ripped out by one well-placed, achingly beautiful line.
That’s not to say that this is a new Elbow. Far from it, in fact. Elbow’s success has been built on dependability and expertly crafted songs that find entire universes in the smallest of everyday moments. If you’re looking for an album with crunching guitars and hurried pacing, this is not the one for you. When you listen to an Elbow album, you know that Guy Garvey’s lyrics are going to perform open-heart surgery on you and that you’ll love every wrenching moment of it.
Change resonates through every measure of every song. Friends are lost, hearts are broken, horizons are reached and left behind again. And throughout every bit of it, you’ll find yourself nodding along in agreement. Elbow has always been the vox populi of alternative rock; they express sentiments that exist at the very core of humanity, but in a way that’s far more effusive and honest than most of us could ever hope to vocalize eloquently. The opening lines of the album’s title track – “You have the time-worn shimmer of tarantella on a Tuscan plain/Patiently listen as dull reminiscences fall from my jaws in a jumble again” – are a prime example of that. It’s pure poetic beauty injected into a totally mundane moment.
You know how people say that the plays of Shakespeare are meant to be seen, not heard? Well, to read Elbow’s lyrics, they’re some of the most beautiful writing you’ll ever encounter, but hearing them, backed by spidery guitars and a thrumming bass and sung by Garvey, adds an entirely new dimension. Basically, it lays your chest wide open, takes your heart in its fist, and squeezes. Elbow knows you inside and out.
Take opening track “This Blue World”. Many people have had a love that makes you feel like the universe has conspired to pair you up, that you’re supposed to be together, but few have probably expressed it as beautifully and empathetically as the lines “Our atoms straining to align/Was the universe in rehearsal for us?” do. “This Blue World” is also a prime example of the genius of Elbow’s pacing. At over seven minutes long, it’s a lush, unhurried love story. And it’s not made for the impatient listener. It takes a good five minutes before the instrumentals swell up to accompany an emotional lyrical sledgehammer – “While three chambers of my heart beat true and strong with love for another/The fourth, the fourth is yours forever” – and that wait only intensifies the eventual emotional pinnacle. And those lyrics, expressing love that feels cosmically planned and intensely intimate, are ones that nearly everyone can relate to.
But if “This Blue World” is all about finding a soulmate, then “Real Life (Angel)” is its counterpart. In my opinion, Elbow is at their best when they’re singing about heartbreak. Tracks from their back catalogue like “Forget Myself” from Leaders of the Free World and “The Bones of You” from The Seldom Seen Kid prove that. “Real Life (Angel)” can unquestioningly join that pantheon, but as much as it is about being heartbroken, it’s even more about healing afterward. “You always found peace in the grip of the beat, darling/Time alone with the pounding of your heart/As it starts to heal you’ll find a better mirror in another,” Garvey counsels comfortingly, and even the most shattered of hearts would be inclined to believe him.
Sonically speaking, there aren’t any major curveballs on Take Off, and they’re not needed. There’s a bit of new gilding here and there, like the slick, Chemical Brothers-tinged drum machine instrumentals in “Colour Fields”, and “Fly Boy Blue/Lunette”, a track that’s basically two songs, each voicing a different opinion of growing older, smashed together. “Fly Boy Blue” is all slinking grunge that laments about aging as if it’s a “lethal ballet” filled with nothing more than “second thoughts, Scotch, [and] dinner.” By comparison, “Lunette” is a ballad grounded by a throbbing bassline that mirrors the calm acceptance of growing older and the changes that it brings. As lines like “But there isn’t words yet for the comfort I get/From the gentle lunette at the top of the nape of the neck that I wake to” show, Garvey might not have it all figured out, but that’s not such a bad thing after all.
If there’s one song from Take Off that really encapsulates what is so great about the album as a whole, it’s “My Sad Captains”. There’s equals parts resignation, remorse, and remembrance here as Garvey remembers what it was like to trade stories over pints in the local pub and regrets how far he’s grown from those friends. The instrumentals are on default Elbow setting here – barely present drums, spare guitar, and bass that throbs every now and again to remind you it’s there – and that allows a lone horn, perfectly mirroring the forlorn lyrics, to take center stage. As sad as Garvey is when he remembers what it was like to pass “another sunrise with my sad captains, with who I choose to lose my mind,” there’s fond nostalgia present too. He follows up that lament with “And if it’s all we only pass this way but once/What a perfect waste of time.” Add that to the already gargantuan file of sentiments that Elbow describes perfectly. To read this description, it doesn’t sound like this is a stadium-ready song, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if, come festival season this summer, the crowds are belting out the chorus of “My Sad Captains”.
Some might criticize Elbow for their tried-and-true formula of expanding the most basic parts of life into entire albums. In the eyes of some, that might seem dull and complacent. But when you get down to it, Elbow turns even the most depressing, mundane parts of life into pure poetry, and who could fault them for that? The Take Off and Landing of Everything is intimate and gorgeous. It takes everyday life and turns it romantic and epic. And it’s impossible to resist getting swept away.